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Tree Testing Is Not Similar To Card Sorting

Card sorting and tree testing are two of the most frequently mentioned usability research methods when it comes to building an intuitive information architecture.

Author: Daria Krasovskaya

Reviewed by: Marek Strba

Last update 19.02.2024

Their differences are aplenty, but to the uninitiated, the relation between these two methods may seem unclear. Which one should you use? Read along to find out!.

What is card sorting?

What card sorting and Tree Testing have in common, is that they are UX research methods used to improve the Information Architecture (IA) of a digital product. Card Sorting is (unsurprisingly) based on sorting cards into categories by your real users.

Since the cards have labels on them to represent your site’s or app’s content (products, features, blog articles and so on), this type of activity will help you understand how your users organize the content in their heads. The data obtained from a card sorting study will help you create IA models that will make sense to the users and provide them with a smooth navigation experience. 

Learn more about what card sorting is and how to conduct your own card sorting study in our guide.

Tree Testing Is Not Similar To Card Sorting

What can card sorting help you with?

  • Understanding mental models of your users
  • Building an intuitive menu structure that makes sense to the users
  • Organizing your content into categories 
  • Labeling the categories

What is tree testing?

After we’ve created potential IA models based on the data obtained from card sorting, we’ll still need to validate them in order to see if our information architecture is functioning properly. That’s what tree testing is for.

Tree testing is a method sometimes also known as reverse card sorting. Rather than getting a stack of cards and being asked to sort them into categories, the information architecture is already known in the form of a tree. The tree is a hierarchical branching structure of information, where the content is found at the tip of its branches. All that respondents have to do is search for the content that is relevant to a task given to them by clicking through the tree.

By seeing where respondents click first and how long it takes them to complete the task, you are able to find confusion points and improve user navigation. 

Tree Testing Is Not Similar To Card Sorting

What can tree testing help you with?

  • Uncovering confusion points in the way your content is organized
  • Testing the usability and clarity of navigation structure
  • Discovering unexpected navigation paths and dead ends
  • Uncovering language and terminology challenges for users
  • Pointing out areas for design improvement

So what is the main difference between card sorting and tree testing?

Card sorting vs tree testing

While card sorting is a formative activity, tree testing is an evaluative activity. Card sorting helps you collect great ideas to base your IA on and tree testing helps you to test if your IA ideas are actually good.

Card sorting helps you understand the mental models of your users and their preferences when it comes to organizing your content and tree testing helps you determine the clarity and usability of your existing organization of content.

Explore the synergy of card sorting and tree testing in our YouTube video!

Which method should you choose?

Card sorting is mainly used when you are choosing what your information architecture is going to be like – therefore you let your respondents choose where each card should be located. This gives you precious insight which can be used to form your information architecture.

When you already have a rough idea, or a working website with set IA, you can opt to use Tree Testing. Tree testing can uncover faults in your Information Architecture and let you know what needs to be worked on.

However, the best results can be achieved when combining the results of both types of research. If you want to further test your IA, use card sorting and then tree testing, and vice versa. Test an IA that you’ve designed with Card Sorting by using Tree Testing. If Tree Testing uncovers problems, conduct a Card Sorting to figure out how to fix them. Repeat the cycle until you’re sure that users can find everything they need.

💡Tip: For a more in-depth analysis of IA, you can also combine Card Sorting and Tree Testing with screen recordings. It will enrich your IA research with qualitative insights. To learn how you can use UXtweak to set up screen recordings for your Card Sorting and Tree Testing, check our video below: 

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